How Was Espionage Used In The Cold War?

There is a perception that the Cold War was about things – nuclear bombs, aircraft, fallout shelters, submarines, satellites and so on.

Or that it was about fear and paranoia – the fear that your enemy could make a sneak attack and totally destroy your country before you could react, and the paranoia that they were planning it right now, and the attack could happen at any moment.

The Cold War was simultaneously both of those things and something else…
…. it was about people.

It was people’s fears that drove them to develop arsenals with horrific destructive capabilities, and their own paranoia that someone might actually weapons like that on them.

It was people who created the weapons and technologies to support them, sometimes out of a sense of patriotic need to defend their territory against an enemy who was also developing weapons of mass destruction. Sometimes just because they could.

It was people who sought advantage over others that they either perceived as being enemies posing an existential threat to their nations, or simply because there was an opportunity to expand their own ‘spheres of influence’… a kind of post-WW2 empire building by a different name.

When you strip away the history of events, this was the essence Cold War espionage. It is a story of the decisions that people made to either betray their country’s secrets to its enemies, or the story of how they coerced others to do that for them.

Cold War espionage is a very human story of loves, lusts, greed and heroism.

Countries from all sides gathered intelligence about their enemy’s capabilities, intentions and plans during the Cold War. Espionage was a key tool for discovering the enemy’s secrets, and counter-espionage became critically important for national security. The information gained from espionage was used to help to prepare for a future war which, if it involved the superpowers directly, stood every chance of developing into a full-blown ‘nuclear exchange’ – that’s political-military jargon for the devastating use of megaton-yield weapons by both sides.

Such an ‘exchange’ had the potential to destroy whole regions, possibly continents and maybe the entire habitable surface of the planet if a nuclear winter was triggered.

A single misunderstanding about the enemy’s intent could have triggered a war or a pre-emptive ‘first-strike’ if an imminent attack was suspected. The stakes were very high and ‘intelligence gathering’ was very difficult due to the secretive veil thrown across Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain.

Countries on all sides had engaged in espionage during WW2. Now they were now using and further developing the techniques that they had learnt in that conflict. 21st Century hi-tech surveillance technology was not available but, as the Cold War progressed, remote sensing technologies became increasingly sophisticated and easier to use.

Even so, intelligence gained from spies and agents working undetected in the opposition’s territory remained a key tool in the espionage ‘game’, despite the problems around verifying the information that they gathered. All of the major Cold War powers had at least one government agency designated to the gathering of intelligence and espionage.

United States
The United States created the ‘Central Intelligence Agency’ (CIA) to conduct its intelligence gathering and espionage operations.

Built on the former ‘Office of Strategic Services’ (OSS) that had conducted espionage during WW2, the CIA took part in a broad range of activities, including both publicly known and covert ‘off the books’ operations. To fulfil its missions, ‘the Agency’ also used resources provided by the ‘National Security Agency’ (NSA – formed in 1952), which engaged in the capture of ELINT (electronic intelligence) through the monitoring and decoding of radio traffic. They were further aided by the ‘Federal Bureau of Investigations’ (FBI), who were responsible for investigating domestic criminal activity, including sedition, espionage and other treasonous activities (1).  

The CIA deployed agents abroad and undertook general surveillance of suspected foreign agents, as well as more illicit operations like ‘regime change’ (encouraging the overthrow of unfriendly governments with forces more supportive of US interests around the world) and assassinations. Not all of their operations were successful, however.

A spectacular CIA failure was their 1961 presumption that a popular uprising of Cubans against Castro’s communist regime could be triggered by an attack from CIA-trained and supported Cuban exiles. They also presumed that Kennedy would give direct US military support if that attack got into difficulty. Both presumptions were wrong.

Despite support from CIA U-2 spy plane overflights collecting intelligence on Cuban military facilities, armaments and troop movements, the exiles’ amphibious attack at the Bay of Pigs failed and there was not a popular uprising. This failure to overturn Castro’s regime caused the newly-appointed President Kennedy significant difficulties in his early discussions with Khrushchev (2). Perhaps, already feeling surrounded by American nuclear missiles in Italy, Turkey and the UK, seeing Kennedy on the back foot over the Bay of Pigs fiasco may have emboldened the Soviet leader’s resolve  about placing missiles on the island one year later, contributing to the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’.

That crisis in 1962 began with the spectacular CIA detection, by U-2 overflights again, of missile sites being built near San Cristobal. With sixty-five Soviet ships having sailed for Cuba that July, it was obvious that the Soviets were now supporting the build up of nuclear forces on an island just ninety miles from the Florida coast.

Early detection of the missile sites gave Kennedy time to think strategically about the US response to this direct threat to the US mainland. This was particularly important as Khrushchev’s plan hinged on the assumption that Kennedy would not dare to attack once the missiles were on place, as at least a few of them would probably survive to be launched against American targets (3).

But Khrushchev had not counted on how Kennedy would react to the Soviet’s earlier deceit that no missiles would be placed on Cuba. It is interesting, decades after these events that could have triggered an inter-continental nuclear war, to read these reflections from McNamara (former US Defense Secretary) and Georgy M. Kornienko (former Soviet first deputy foreign minister) (4):

Kornienko: Now, how did we think you would respond to the deployment? I think that Khrushchev just hoped that Kennedy would, so to say, “swallow some missiles.” Khrushchev believed that Kennedy was a very clever man. Therefore, Kennedy would probably accept Soviet missiles in Cuba, not out of weakness but because of prudence.

McNamara: It seems to me that Khrushchev was hoping that Kennedy would accept the missile deployment in Cuba—and I emphasize “hoping” because I don’t think he thought it through at all. He was somehow counting on being able to surprise Kennedy and the world. It was more like a fantasy than a plan. He didn’t have a fallback in case they were discovered earlier.

Kennedy was initially shocked by the news that the Soviets were putting missiles on Cuba and evoked the same sense of outrage that Khrushchev might have felt if the US had suddenly put missiles that close to Soviet territory by saying “… just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of [missiles] in Turkey.”

… the trouble was that the US had just deployed 15 Jupiter MRBMs with 1.44 megaton warheads there in 1961.

“Well, we did, Mr President,” he was reminded (5).

Kennedy had known about this – shortly after his inauguration he had asked what could be done to remove them, perceiving that “… if Turkey could attack across the Black Sea for the US, Cuba could attack across the Gulf of Mexico for the USSR” (6), but the final decision had been to leave them there in the interest of US-Turkish relations.

The rest of the story about the Cuban Missile Crisis is thoroughly documented in many places and I will not repeat it here. From an espionage/intelligence perspective, perhaps the most pertinent observations are that the US had a complete intelligence failure to detect the Soviet’s intentions before the missiles were being shipped to Cuba and that their discovery was entirely dependent on the U-2 overflights. Without that technological advantage the US might well have had to ‘swallow some missiles’, and the course of the Cold War would likely have been very different from there. The other significant failure was on the Soviet side, with a ‘hope’ that Kennedy would have to accept the missiles, without a proper evaluation of his likely response if they were detected en route.

The many other CIA Cold War operations included:

  • backing ‘Radio Free Europe’ to transmit pro-Western news and anti-communist propaganda into Eastern Europe (7) (which probably had an overall positive effect on swinging the balance towards the West),
  • organising weapons shipments to rebels (the Mujahedeen) fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan (with a somewhat mixed result with the benefit of hindsight),
  • providing millions of dollars in funding for pro-US factions during Angola’s civil war,
  • triggering a botched coup in Chile against the democratically elected socialist Salvador Guillermo Allende Gossens,
  • directly controlling Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDGs) in Vietnam,
  • and backing private armies in Laos (8).
Wherever there was unrest or war, the CIA were probably there.

But sometimes the CIA’s plans were superbly audacious and close to perfectly executed.

Take ‘Project Azorian’ (9) for example. This plan involved lifting, in total secrecy, the entire wreck of K-129, a Soviet diesel-electric ballistic missile submarine, which had sunk under 16,000 feet of Pacific water in 1968. The Soviets did not know what had happened to K-129, but the US knew exactly where it was from an initial detection of its sinking via the SOSUS array (10) and a follow up search by the USS Halibut (an SSN attack submarine).

The CIA secretly funneled money to Howard Hughes for the building of the ship, Glomar Explorer, that would lift the wreck. Their cover story was that Hughes was building the ship in order to mine manganese nodules from the sea floor. The deception was brilliant:

  • manganese nodule fields had been detected in deep water by side-scan sonar,
  • the enrichment of manganese in sediments close to mid-ocean ridges had been detected,
  • the chemistry for precipitating the nodules was understood (11),
  • it is a valuable metal used in steelmaking, and
  • mines on the surface were controlled by just a few nations (80% in South Africa alone) (12).

Ultimately in 1974, and at a cost of $800 million ($4 billion allowing for inflation), the Glomar Explorer managed to raise a third of the wreck, including sections with 2 nuclear torpedoes as well as (probably) code books, hatch covers, instruments and sonar equipment.

Who knows how many other operations and ‘hits’ were organised by the Agency during the Cold War?

Soviet Union
Soviet espionage at the start of the Cold War was essentially a continuation of spying that had started on the Manhattan Project, and nuclear secrets were highly prized.

From the late 1950s to 1961, the so-called ‘Portland Spy Ring’ (13) passed British naval secrets to the Soviets. The Soviets’ agent was Harry Houghton, a former WW2 sailor who had spent some Civil Service time after the war in Poland. Houghton had played the black market in Warsaw, enjoying drink and women before his behaviour was noticed and he was sent back to England. In a serious error of judgement, he was sent to work at the ‘Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment’ and HMS Osprey. Once there he was compromised by the KGB and then run by Konon Molody, a Soviet ‘illegal resident’ (undeclared spy) operating as ‘Gordon Lonsdale’, a dead man whose identity had been stolen.

Houghton’s access to secrets at Portland was limited but he persuaded Ethel Gee, a filing clerk, to pass documents to him. Following up on a 1959 CIA tip off, MI5 eventually saw Houghton pass an envelope to ‘Lonsdale’ and, by following the handler, broke the spy ring open. As part of their operation, MI5 had followed Lonsdale to the Ruislip home of Peter and Helen Kroger. The Krogers were also Russian ‘illegals’, previously known as Morris and Lona Cohen – the same Cohens who had spied in the US during the 1940s until Kim Philby warned the KGB that they were at risk of being discovered.

The Cohens had been superb spies in the US for the Soviets. Lona had smuggled a report including the complete diagram of the first atomic bomb (given to her by Theodore Hall, a physicist on the Manhattan Project) away from the Los Alamos area back to the spies’ New York rezidentura (their ‘Station’ base of operations). Her husband had smuggled a working model of a new machine gun into the Soviet consulate, hidden in a bass fiddle case (14). Together they also ran ‘Line X’, delivering and receiving secret documents along the US East Coast.

Now living in the UK as the Krogers, they were the link between ‘Lonsdale’ and Moscow, arranging to send British secrets as microdots in books from their antiquarian bookshop on the Strand (London). A ‘burst-transmission’ radio was also found in their bungalow, enabling them to send compressed messages in seconds to Moscow (15).  This ‘Portland Spy ring’ shared secrets with the Soviets about Britain’s nuclear submarine programme, including designs for HMS Resolution, Britain’s first SSBN (ballistic missile submarine). Their actions and eventual discovery did not help the relationship between the UK and US security services.

The KGB (‘Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti’ – Committee for State Security) was the secret police force of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Acting as the main security agency, they carried out internal security, intelligence and secret-police activities. They had significant success in 1967 when John Walker, a US Navy Chief Warrant Officer, walked into the Soviet embassy and sold them a radio cipher card for several thousand dollars. Walker passed secrets to the Soviets for the next eighteen years, recruiting friends and family into his spy ring.

The KGB also recruited Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as agents to run a spy ring in New York. The Rosenbergs were communists and Julius had been dismissed from the Army Signal Corps in 1945 when his sympathies were discovered. By that stage he had already recruited Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass. Greenglass was working as an army machinist on the Manhattan Project and passed sketches and notes about the atomic bomb to them. Their other recruits allegedly delivered thousands of pages of documents regarding new aircraft and radar technologies.

Klaus Fuchs, a theoretical physicist who had become a British citizen in 1942 after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, worked on many essential calculations for both the atomic bomb and early hydrogen bombs at Los Alamos. He also shared many of those secrets with the Soviets via a courier linked to the Ronserbergs’ spy ring. Perhaps the most valuable secret he shared was technical information on how uranium could be processed for use in a bomb – information that had required two years of experimentation and $400 million. He also shared the amounts of uranium or plutonium that the US were planning to use in their atomic bombs, although this may have been of less help due to the way that Lavrenti Beria (chief of the Soviet secret police apparatus, the NKVD and Stalin’s deputy premier from 1941) used intelligence from spies as a check on Soviet scientists’ work, rather than passing it on as prime source of reference.

After the war Fuchs returned to a prestigious role at a British nuclear energy research centre. He was eventually traced to the Rosenberg’s and in 1950 confessed to MI5 that he was a spy.

Fuchs’ treachery led to the US losing confidence in the UK security services in general, and the safety of any nuclear secrets that they might have shared in particular. They became unwilling to supply the UK with atomic weapons (that would have been under British control) that had been close to being agreed in 1949. Britain was left with the realisation that effective air defence against a Soviet attack was probably not possible, and a counter-force strike at Soviet bases was impossible without the American weapons (16). The UK would be without its own nuclear deterrent until 1952.

The Rosenbergs were convicted and then executed for espionage on 19th June 1953. Senator Daniel Moynihan later wrote that the secrets passed to the Soviets by the Rosenbergs reduced their atomic bomb programme from five years to four. Post-Soviet era decryption of KGB messages confirm that Julius had been a spy, whilst the evidence against Ethel and her guilt remains inconclusive (17).

Espionage did not go entirely the Soviet’s way.

The son of an NKVD officer, Colonel Oleg Gordievsky had a good career in the KGB until he became disenchanted after their invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He was based in Denmark at the time and the Danish Security Intelligence Service worked with Britain’s MI6 to recruit him as an agent. By 1982 Gordievsky was based in London, responsible for Soviet intelligence gathering and espionage in the UK. Perhaps his most important contribution to UK intelligence was in alerting the West about how seriously the Soviets were misinterpreting 1983’s NATO defence exercise called Operation Able Archer, leading to a very significant increase in nuclear tensions in Moscow (18).

In July 1985, MI6 smuggled Gordievsky out of Russia across the Finnish border and hence back to London via Norway. Gordievsky had been exposed by Aldrich Ames, the CIA’s head of their Soviet counterintelligence branch.

Ames had turned traitor in 1985 after going to Soviet embassy in Washington D.C. where he offered to exchange secrets for money. Ames was paid around $2.7 million over a period of nine years in exchange for classified documents and the disclosure of the identities of almost every secret agent working for the US within the Soviet Union. At least ten of those he identified were sentenced to death in the Soviet Union (19). Ames was arrested in 1993 and sentenced to life imprisonment a year later.

Sometimes foreign agents won and secrets were lost.

On other occasions friendly agents like Adolf Tolkachev passed important information to the West.

Tolkachev was an electronics engineer at a Moscow military aviation institute. After a hesitant start he became an important intelligence source for the CIA. Between 1979 – 1985 he regularly copied classified documents with a CIA-supplied camera, revealing secrets like the fact that US cruise missiles and bomber planes had the ability to fly under Soviet radar and information, about new Soviet weapons systems which saved the US about $2 billion that would otherwise have been spent on research and manufacturing costs (20).

The Soviet bloc had some significant successes recruiting agents from within the British Establishment (21) that eventually forced the British Security Services (MI5 and MI6) to de-emphasis ‘the old boy network’ and restructure into modern, professional organisations. The process of revealing these spies’ treachery from within the Establishment was very painful for all concerned.

Ray Mawby was both the Member of Parliament (MP) for Totnes between 1955 – 1983 (22), and an agent for the military intelligence service of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic from 1960 (23). Mawby, codenamed ‘Laval’, did not have access to classified information but he did share important political gossip, the floor plans of the Prime Minister’s office in parliament, and information about the prime minister’s security team. Mawby’s espionage was not discovered until the Czech Security Services’ archives were opened after the end of the Cold War.

Mawby’s treachery was ultimately not severely damaging, unlike that of the so-called “Cambridge Five”.

In the 1930s the Soviets had managed to recruit five Cambrige University students immediately after their graduation – Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. The Soviets guessed that the Establishment would not suspect five men with elite educations and upper-class backgrounds as being foreign agents. All five worked their way into intelligence posts and passed important classified information to the Soviets.

Philby was perhaps their most successful Cambridge Five agent, becoming the head of the anti-Soviet section of MI6. He revealed the 1950s UK-US operations to subvert the communist regime in Albania, resulting in the deaths of many agents who were captured on arrival. He revealed information about Allied military plans during the Korean War. Who knows how many friendly agents died because of the secrets he and the Cambridge Five revealed? Much is written about their treachery which will not be repeated here as the story is both long and freely available.

Britain needed to ‘clear its decks’, significantly improve its counter-espionage operations and stem the flow of secrets to the Soviets. A turning point came with Operation FOOT in 1971, when 105 Soviet intelligence officers were expelled from London. This freed up valuable intelligence resources and, for the first in a long time, made Britain a more difficult espionage target for the Soviet Union. For many years after this landmark event the KGB were forced to ask the Cuban and other Soviet Bloc agencies to help plug this new intelligence gap (24).

British espionage
Britain was not always on the back foot with espionage during the Cold War, although the reality is much grittier than the myths projected by Ian Fleming’s thrillers. Two examples come to mind…

After the end of WW2, the Allies, including the Russians, signed the Robertson-Malinin agreement (25) in 1946. This agreement allowed for ‘Military Liaison Missions’ to be created which had the general right for “… freedom of travel and circulation … in each zone [ie the occupied zones in Germany controlled by the Allies] with the exception of restricted areas…”, and allowed “… Couriers and Despatch Riders to pass freely from the Mission (each Liaison’s base of operations) to the HQ of their own Commander-in-Chief… [who] will enjoy the same immunity as diplomatic Couriers.” The Mission buildings were given full diplomatic immunity. The British group was known as BRIXMIS.

BRIXMIS enjoyed freedoms in Soviet-occupied Germany that were not available to any other military group at the time – the rights were reciprocal for the Soviets, of course. ‘Touring’ the German countryside at will in specially-adapted cars, they were able to spy on enemy troop movements and exercises, photograph and film (video record) new equipment, gather up discarded papers and equipment (sometimes in unpleasant circumstances – see Geraghty’s book for more on that). They became adept at interacting with the Soviets and were especially useful when a new Yak-28 ‘Firebar’ interceptor crashed into an area of Lake Havel in the British-controlled sector of Berlin.

BRIXMIS delaying tactics created the time needed for the Firebar to be systematically stripped of its secrets underwater, right under the Soviet’s noses. In the process, its engines were removed, flown to England, stripped, examined, rebuilt and returned within 48 hours. BRIXMIS played dumb when the Soviets noticed that 7 rotor blades were missing when the engines were returned – and played even dumber when most of the airframe was returned intact, except for a part of the radar kit. Major (later Colonel) Geoffrey Stephenson who was liaising with the Soviets while their latest jet was being examined later said of that part – “… We had nicked it and couldn’t return it because it was a very intricate item(26).

Gaining ‘samples’ of Soviet hardware was not limited to the land. In 1982 HMS Conqueror, a RN SSN, intercepted a Polish-flagged surveillance trawler that was towing a new Soviet towed-array sonar on the boundary of Soviet territorial waters. Using specially fitted cutters, Conqueror cut through the 3-inch thick wire and ‘nicked’ the sonar array, eventually returning to her base on the River Clyde. Known as ‘Operation Barmaid’, the UK government has so far refused to release information about this audacious event, claiming that “… its release would be likely to prejudice capability, effectiveness and security of our forces… [and] … release would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other state” (27).

It would be impossible to write a full account of Cold War espionage. Too many of the stories are sealed as national secrets, like Operation Barmaid, too many were probably never recorded, and the many which are public knowledge could fill whole libraries on their own. Espionage was a huge Cold War ‘front’ in its own right, and countering it was essential for national security.

It is very likely that the espionage war did not end simply because the Cold War was announced to have ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.



2 – “Cold War” – Issacs and Downing – ‘Back Yard – A Fiasco’ – Bantam Press, 1998

3 – “Cold War” – Issacs and Downing – ‘Back Yard – Krushchev’s Bold Idea’ – Bantam Press, 1998

4 – “The Cuban Missile Crisis” – Arms Control Association –

5 – “Cold War” – Issacs and Downing – ‘Back Yard – Krushchev’s Bold Idea’ – Bantam Press, 1998

6 – “To the Brink: Turkish and Cuban Missiles during the Height of the Cold War” – Cody Fuelling – International Social Science Review, Vol. 93, Iss. 1 –

7 – “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty” – and “Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA” –  John Prados, (Ivan R. Dee, 2012) and “Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty” –

8 – “Nam – The Vietnam Experience” – Page & Pimlott – ‘Sensors & Surveillance’ – Orbis Publishing Ltd, 1988

9 – “Project AZORIAN” –

10 – “SOSUS” –

11 – see the descriptions in “The Ocean Basins: Their Structure and Evolution” – The Open University (2001), for example


13 – Portland Spy Ring” –

14 – “Lona Cohen” – ‘Espionage’ –

15 – “MI6 – Life and Death in the British Secret Service” – Gordon Corera – Weidenfield & Nicolson 2012

16 – “Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy, 1945-1964”, John Bayliss,  p. 141, Clarendon Press Oxford (1995)

17 – “6 Traitorous Cold War Spies” –

18 – “1983 – The World at the Brink” – Taylor Downing, Abacus (2019)

19 – “6 Traitorous Cold War Spies” –

20 – “6 Traitorous Cold War Spies” –

21 – “The Establishment” –

22 – “Parliamentary career for Ray Mawby” – ttps://

23 – “Tory minister Raymond Mawby ‘spied for Czechs’” – Independent newspaper –


25 – “Regarding The Exchange of Military Liaison Missions Between the Soviet and British Commanders-in-Chief of Zones of Occupation in Germany” – full text is reproduced at

26 – “BRIXMIS” – ‘One of their Aircraft is Missing’ – Tony Geraghty – HarperCollins (1997)

27 – “Letter to Ms Karen” – Ministry of Defence, 2014 –

%d bloggers like this: